I could have added my name to the #MeToo social media campaign that began on October 15, but I didn’t. The campaign, which aims to illuminate the full scope of women affected by sexual assault and harassment, is noble and needed in theory. Originally initiated by Tarana Burke 10 years ago, the movement re-emerged with virality when actress Alyssa Milano posted the following to Twitter: “Suggested by a friend: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Though nearly all of the women I know take the risk of sexual assault and harassment as a granted fact in their lives, many men are experientially oblivious to this. The sheer volume of women and men willing to publicly expose their own experiences is a powerful testament to a pervasive problem we’ve historically kept in the dark.The #MeToo campaign, however imperfect, fashioned fellowship out of isolation.
However, the campaign is not without flaw. The original instructions encouraged victims of both sexual assault and sexual harassment to post “me too” to their social media accounts. Some participants chose to simply post those words or #metoo; others chose to describe their painful incidents of harassment and assault. To be clear, sexual assault and sexual harassment are both wrong, full stop. That said, the wide array of incidents made the campaign a veritable melting pot of vagueness, causing skeptics to callously cry foul. The courage gained by admitting #metoo in solidarity was spent in asking survivors to publicly announce their often traumatizing and shame-inducing experiences to the world. And it still failed to expose the actual perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment. Instead, the campaign exposed victims, solidified our culture’s state of willful confusion as to what constitutes a sexual violation, and affirmed to guilty individuals that their offenses are benign at worst.
Often times sexual harassment seems to pale in comparison to the atrocity of sexual assault. In fact, victims of sexual harassment frequently feel as if the violation they experienced is invalid when compared to someone who has survived sexual assault. Not only are they unlikely to speak up, but they are less likely to identify as a victim. Consequently, it stands to reason that, because of our treatment of sexual harassment as mostly harmless, we embolden perpetrators. Until we are willing to specifically name sexual harassment as a grave violation, this will continue. And, unfortunately, the Me Too campaign’s worthy inclusion of sexual harassment perhaps undermines the severity of it by conflating it with assault. But a movement that seeks to illuminate such large-scale systemic injustices via the personal, vulnerable testimonies of survivors is limited in its mobility—it cannot be precise without risking the further violation of survivors, and it cannot be holistically representative by being more narrow in scope.
That said, I do not believe the women and men who participated in the Me Too campaign should have been mandated to be more explicit; it is not the obligation of the abused to enlighten their abusers. As Megan Nolan of Vice put it, “[I]t seems grotesque to me to lay the burden of representation on women, that we are tasked with performing our pain so often.” And yet, objective conversations regarding rape culture are often met with skeptical indifference. Those whose lives have not been intruded upon by the harsh edges of sexual violation cannot validate the vastness of the problem without having it humanized for them. And thus, survivors of sexual assault and harassment often feel their options are to be silent and ignored or painfully vulnerable and heard.
The Me Too campaign took a bold step by asking victims to expose themselves. Though there was perhaps some payoff in solidarity for survivors, the movement’s asking price was neither cheap nor hidden: Perform your pain for the world. No, it should not be your duty to make believers of us, but without your willingness to do this, the silence on this issue is uncomfortably comfortable. Many rightfully pointed toward the privilege attached to the most fundamental aspect of this campaign—it is a movement that illuminates a problem by outing victims rather than perpetrators.
Ideally, this would not be the case. Ideally, we could objectively identify harassment and assault as wrong without asking survivors to expose painful wounds. We could discuss harassment and assault theoretically—aware of the wrongness without victims’ accounts to humanize the problem.
And yet, the socially powerful are infrequently willing to personally invest in the correction of a problem that does not affect them, let alone one that carries negative consequences. Perhaps the broken reality is that victims are often charged with carrying their own torch until the injustices committed against them have been illuminated so brightly that we cannot ignore them anymore.
If nothing else, the Me Too campaign enacted a widespread solidarity victims of sexual violence are often not privy to. Survivors of sexual assault and harassment often endure the isolating darkness of silence, unaware of one another’s presence until someone is emboldened to whisper in the shadows. The campaign, however imperfect, fashioned fellowship out of isolation. As Christians we know that this—communion with one another—is often as restorative as it is taxing. The linked arms of human beings do not constitute an impervious shield, but they do create a brace, of sorts—something that allows weakness by offering up collective strength. The Me Too campaign will always exist as an imperfect historical moment. Even its inception, which has been credited to an influential white woman rather than the black woman who preceded her by a decade, is a relic of the privilege that permeates the campaign. It lacks specificity and, as a result, undermines the severity of the sexual harassment that props up rape culture. Worse, it relies on the exposure of victims rather than perpetrators.
Even still, we can easily wring good from this moment. As a culture, we were briefly cognizant of the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment. We questioned our own complicity in a systemic problem. However, though I hope I’m wrong, I suspect this cultural consciousness is more akin to a fleeting moment than it is a large-scale attitude shift. The communion that was ignited by this moment, though, is restorative, good, and important. As Anne Lamott once said, “Those are the words of salvation: Guess what? Me too.”